This isn’t the first year that the GAA has had reason to shift uncomfortably at the switch in focus from big-stage fixtures to homely club contests.
Last weekend generated yet more dismal publicity concerning the association’s apparently never-ending ability to embarrass itself in the matter of discipline, to say nothing of common decency.
It might not be fair to accuse the association of doing nothing about the litany of almost casual attacks on referees but it has taken a long time to concentrate minds on the issue.
Ironically, it was Wexford chair Micheál Martin, who within the past 12 months had been on the record saying that refereeing was the most critical problem facing the county, who had to deal with one of the latest outrages, an alleged assault on a referee after a junior football match on Sunday.
GAA president Larry McCarthy has repeatedly identified the recruitment, protection and support of referees as a priority and only recently in interview with Gordon Manning on these pages, regretted that he hadn’t fully addressed these concerns earlier.
It would be a surprise were some initiatives not taken to deal with what has become a recurrently toxic problem but how, realistically, does Croke Park deal with something as ingrained in the behaviour of some members?
For a start, it must be recognised that the astonishing lack of discipline that brings a team official onto the field to attack a match official is just the apex of the pyramid. Beneath it are contributory factors to the environment in which all referees operate.
Issues of respect for referees begin with how their match reports and in-play decisions are treated. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some counties anything up to 70 per cent of red cards shown during a championship are being rescinded. The reason the evidence is anecdotal – in that particular case it comes from a referee – is that there are no adequate records kept so that such decisions can be monitored.
Speaking to this newspaper a month ago about the University of Ulster study on abuse of match officials, Croke Park’s Donal Smyth made the point.
“The reality is that we don’t keep sufficient records. Do county boards keep those figures? The answer is ‘no’. We have bare facts like so-and-so got a three-month suspension but we don’t get a picture of what happened.
“If a referee is abused and reports the matter, it should be dealt with transparently and the referees’ committee should know exactly why a decision was made. The referee is a stakeholder in the disciplinary process.”
They may be stakeholders in the process but they are ultimately not part of it.
A reasonably generous estimate for the rate of mistaken sendings-off might be 10 per cent – so how do higher figures of exculpation come about in a literally unaccountable process?
Common discourse about the “culture” of the games places it in the context of society at large and a growing disinclination to observe rules. Before though we get carried away with the idea that the GAA is a passive entity, propelled into anarchy by forces beyond its control, ask whether the association is doing enough to enforce its own rules.
It is well known at this stage that the most important committees at any level are those administering discipline. They have to know the rules and be prepared to enforce them without fear or – more to the point – favour.
Not alone should there be careful records maintained, detailing disciplinary outcomes – name, recorded infraction and category, and if the referee’s decision is to be rescinded, a very careful explanation of why that happened – but the burden of responsibility to overturn an on-field decision should be so great that each time this happens, it should have to be reported to the provincial council.
At a recent meeting with their FAI counterparts, GAA officials noted that since some high-profile assaults on soccer referees in the past year or so, these hearings go straight to national level to move them beyond the special pleading of local interests and their quid pro quo temptations.
A very interesting idea from a prominent official speaking privately was that a leaf should be borrowed from the book of The Untouchables, the climactic scene of which saw the Al Capone jury, over whom tampering allegations hovered, simply swapped with another about to sit in a divorce case in the next-door court.
This would work by counties having arrangements with neighbouring counties to provide their hearings committees. The candidates would be vouched for by their own county chair and secretary and the partnering county would be revised every three years to prevent familiarity.
Any means by which the link between misbehaviour and appropriate punishment might be strengthened would improve the lot of referees by ensuring their decisions are respected.
Those decisions are meant to be sacrosanct, only overturned by video evidence disproving that the infraction occurred. Instead, they are cheerfully thrown out by hearings committees – including the CHC with Peter Casey’s red card last year – for reasons that either fall short of that standard or are simply not explained at all.
Neither should there be any question of gardaí backing off from prosecution because the matter is being dealt with in-house, ie with the threat of suspension for team officials – the majority source of verbal abuse of referees, according to the UU study – which simply debars them from the “functions and privileges” of membership.
Given that for many this apparently means withdrawing the “function and privilege” of abusing match officials, it hardly adds up to Draconian punishment.
A custodial sentence would have far more impact.
Among the extensive reportage that has accompanied the bleak developments of recent days, the Oscar for black comedy comes courtesy of Tony Leen in the Irish Examiner.
A few weeks ago in Kerry, an under-11 hurling match during which scores weren’t even being recorded was summarily abandoned by the referee because of persistent verbal abuse from a team official.
It was taking place under the protocols of the “silent sideline” initiative.